Child sexual exploitation and child sexual abuse has always been a central issue in psychology, with millions of adults reporting that they were sexually abused in childhood (BCS, 2016), a 5.7% conviction rate in sexual violence and a 2 in 3 chance of sexual revictimisation in the lifetime (Eaton, 2017). Many mental health issues, trauma responses, psychosomatic issues, coping mechanisms and experiences are related to early experiences of sexual abuse – our body of evidence is absolutely huge on this topic.
Child sexual exploitation has developed in a strange way – the field, which is dominated by politics, NGOs and statutory services, who have developed and implemented interventions, strategies and services with no evidence base whatsoever. It is extremely rare to find frontline workers who have been taught anything at all about the psychology of sex offending, the psychology of trauma responses, the psychology of abuse and harm – or any psychology at all. I have always found this odd, as I see CSE and CSA as issues of human psychology – whether that is the psychology of the offenders, the psychology of the victims or even the psychology of the society which reinforces sexual violence at every turn (something my own research focusses on).
Some might say that professionals such as social workers, police, youth workers, support workers and therapists working with children who have been sexually exploited and abused don’t need the expertise of psychologists or need to understand the psychology of this topic – but I beg to differ.
Out of all our skills as psychologists – whether you are clinical, forensic, developmental, academic, practice, research-focussed, social, counselling health, cognitive, neuro, educational or child-focussed – I think my favourite skill is the level of critical thinking and the seeking of evidence before we support or condemn an intervention, tool, theory or idea.
Psychologists, there are interventions being used with tens of thousands of children all over the UK which have never been tested, have no evidence base and are likely to be causing significant harm to children as young as 11 years old. We have to step up to the plate and do something about it.
Having spent 8 years working in sexual violence, with the last 3 years in CSE specifically – some of the interventions, assumptions and services I have seen in the UK concern me. Some teeter on illegal. I am often the only person in an organisation with psychological expertise and I quickly started to realise that I was seeing problems that others could not see. I was, and still am, seen as hyper-critical or even ‘aggressive’ and ‘unprofessional’, because I am pointing out that the interventions being used on children are not tested, not valid, not ethical and in some cases are clearly harming children and their families (please click this link to read the accounts of real children who were harmed by CSE resources https://victimfocus.wordpress.com/2017/07/08/please-stop-using-all-cse-resources-heres-why/ ).
Here is an extract from the blog in case you don’t have time to go to it:
“Young Person 3: Did you lot see that drama thing that came round all the schools where the girl is convinced she’s gonna be a model but they rape her and sell her and lock her in a flat? I BEGGED them not to make me watch that. No one listened to me. I was terrified I was gonna have like a massive mental breakdown in a row in assembly sat on the floor with hundreds of people around me and I wouldn’t be able to get out. They made me watch it like 3 times and one time I was so upset they let me sit at the side of the hall in case I had another panic attack and then loads of people kept asking me why I was sitting there and whether it had happened to me and I was mortified.”
I need your support to campaign against these interventions being used with children. Last month, I presented a workshop on this topic at The British Psychological Society in London – and none of the psychologists I taught had heard of this intervention. I showed the films to them. They were horrified. Two of them rang their kids’ schools to find out whether their children had been shown the resources or were due to see them. Not only this, but many of them stayed behind to ask me how we could form a campaign to stop this practice. This letter is my response.
All over the UK, tens of thousands of children are being shown films containing the rape and sexual abuse of children, drugging of children, trafficking, grooming, bullying and physical violence (in the sector, they are called ‘CSE resources’ by practitioners and the sellers). The films are shown to children as young as 11 years old (and I have heard of children of 9 years old being shown them).
The underpinning assumption with these films are:
- If children are shown videos of sexual abuse and exploitation, they will know what it is for future reference
- If children know what sexual exploitation and abuse is, they will be able to protect themselves from sex offenders
- If children know what sexual exploitation and abuse is, they will ‘spot the signs’ and escape an abuser quicker
- If children watch the abuse and exploitation of other children, they will realise that it can happen to them
- If children who have already been abused watch the films, they will understand better what happened to them
- If children who are currently being sexually abused watch the films, they will leave the abuser
All of these assumptions are problematic – some are ridiculous. There is not one single drop of evidence for these assumptions and they completely ignore the power and responsibility of the sex offenders abusing the children. They place an enormous amount of responsibility and blame on children. The assumptions represent a complete misunderstanding of knowledge. Knowledge of abuse, relationships and sex is vital for all children and adults – but it will not protect a child from an adult who is sexually abusing them. Knowledge is irrelevant when a human is being abused, harmed, controlled and oppressed.
And yet, there are a number of active organisations making these films and selling them to schools, local authorities, police forces, probation, youth offending, youth prisons, charities and residential companies. Some of these films are marketed as ‘preventative’, some claim to ‘reduce abuse’ and enable children to ‘spot the signs before it is too late’.
The films are shown to children who are ‘at risk’ of CSE (don’t even get me started on how bad the risk assessment tools are in this field but it is in my latest evidence review Eaton and Holmes, 2017). The films are also shown to children who have recently been abused, recently been raped or assaulted, shown to entire assemblies of children, shown to class-size groups, shown in support groups and charities and shown 1:1 to children who are currently being trafficked and exploited. Basically, they are being used as a catch-all intervention. Practitioners are being taught that these films help children. And then they are convinced to buy them or download them for a cool £294.00 each. These films have become common practice, written into action plans, strategies, policies and strategic responses to CSE all over the UK. Practitioners who refuse to use these films for ethical reasons are often seen as problematic and the work is passed to another practitioner who will.
Just to be clear, here are some descriptions of real scenes from the films being used every day in the UK:
- A child is given drugs and alcohol and sexually assaulted on a bench
- A child is drugged until unconscious, trafficked, imprisoned in a dirty room and raped multiple times in different positions by multiple men
- A child is carried unconscious to a bedroom where men pay to rape her
- A child is raped, chased into a field and murdered with a brick to the head, the child’s parents identify her body in a morgue
- A child is taken to a party, drugged and then raped by multiple people
- A small child who is sexually abused by a man she met online ends the video by looking into the camera and saying ‘I thought I knew. I should have known.’
- A child is given large quantities of alcohol and sexually assaulted on a sofa whilst limply trying to bat the man away
- A small child being sexually abused and then taken to the police to give statements
I have watched adult professionals cry whilst watching these resources at conferences and training courses. I know professionals who refuse to watch some of them because it upsets or triggers them. We even give professionals trigger warnings before showing them in conferences – but we are showing them to children as a routine intervention. When children refuse to watch them, they are labelled as ‘refusing to engage’ or ‘hard to reach’.
In February 2017, I was teaching a workshop about the lack of evidence base in CSE practice when a social worker put her hand up and disclosed to the rest of the group that she had worked with a girl who had been raped and exploited repeatedly for months. The social worker had been told to show the girl a CSE film in which the teenage girl is trafficked and violently raped. She was told to keep showing the DVD to her until she ‘understands what she is doing’. The social worker was close to tears in my group as she told the room that she made that child watch the DVD 11 times because the CSE strategy group in the local authority had told her that she must keep showing it to her until she realised how ‘risky her behaviour is’ and ‘leaves the abusers’. The child was 14 years old. “What have I done?” She said as she held her head in her hands.
The rest of the group were not shocked. Far from it, they confessed to doing the same thing. They asked me ‘but if we don’t use these films, how else do we get through to them?’
In 2017, Leicestershire police made Kayleigh’s Love Story which depicts the sexual homicide of Kayleigh Haywood who was murdered in 2016. The video is extremely graphic and has never been empirically tested and yet many local authorities paid for this resource to be rolled out to thousands of children in schools all across the Midlands. The resource is used heavily in ‘CSE’ and ‘sexting’ – but what actually happened to Kayleigh was not a ‘love story’ and nor was it systematic abuse – it was a sexual homicide that occurred within 2 weeks of Kayleigh being approached by the offender. The video has gone on to win awards and all sorts of accolades – but it has never been tested for effect, trauma, impact or anything at all really.
There is also a legal issue here. I am worried that practitioners, local authorities and charities are breaking the law. I am sure that showing children sexually violent material is illegal. Even images of child abuse that imply or depict a child are illegal. I am also worried that the consistent, repeated exposure to sexually violent materials to children who don’t want to watch it or have been victims of sexual violence – constitutes abuse.
Even though I have been challenging this practice for two years, progress is extremely slow. But when I talk to psychologists about this, they immediately understand my concerns. Some psychologists have actually asked me for proof of these films because they didn’t believe they existed. I also have a lot of quiet support for this campaign – hundreds of practitioners feel the same way as I do, but they are trapped in a system that makes them use these films as interventions. They rarely speak out because they are worried about backlash. I know first-hand what the backlash is when you argue against these resources, because there is a monetary agenda here – and a larger culture of victim blaming in CSE that feeds these films.
When I spoke at the British Psychological Society, I realised that the reason psychologists don’t know about this problem is because they have been cut out of CSE and CSA services (and we all know the impact of removing Ed Psychs from schools) – which seem to sit squarely within charities, social care and policing. Due to this, people from charities, social care teams and policing teams have led on the CSE interventions without input from experts in the psychology of sex offending and trauma.
Psychologists are extremely rare in social care teams, extremely rare in police teams, extremely rare in charities and are almost unheard of in CSE strategy. Interventions and strategy has been developed and implemented without the oversight and expertise of psychologists, who could have advised on sex offender methodology, trauma of children, impact of abuse, sex offender risk assessment, the development and use of psychometrics, the use counselling skills and so on. The field of CSE has now developed its own subculture which rarely utilises empirical evidence from psychology and criminology – it publishes report after report and never cites research from outside of its own subculture. It is very rare to find CSE research and reports that talk about psychology, criminology, sex offender theory, psychology of trauma, victim psychology, social psychology and so on. This culture has resulted in a ‘reinventing the wheel’ process which has developed untested risk assessments, psychometric measures, outcome frameworks, interventions and techniques that go against everything we know.
Ultimately, it has led to a range of interventions, techniques and assumptions that are not in the best interests of children or their families.
Psychologists, I am writing to you for two reasons:
- To begin a campaign to stop the use of these CSE films with children
- To begin a discussion about the role of psychology in statutory and voluntary services, specifically those responding to child abuse
I propose the hashtag #nomoreCSEfilms
I have developed a petition on the .gov website which will go live next week – and I will add the link here.
If anyone has links to BPS and can share this to the senior management, please do.
If anyone has links to government, local authority directors and police and health commissioners, please share this letter.
If any psychologists reading this letter want to get involved in the campaign to improve CSE intervention practice and to end the use of these graphic materials with children, please email me firstname.lastname@example.org